Tag Archives: Critical Analysis

ICYMI: ‘If space allows’

[Author’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 5 January 2017.]

Thanks to a timely message alerting me to a collection of letters for sale at eBay, I recently acquired one side of the genealogical correspondence between Regina Shober Gray[1] and the Rev. Richard Manning Chipman, author of The Chipman Lineage (1872). Mrs. Gray, so expansive in some areas of her diary, is comparatively terse with regard to the beginning of the correspondence: Continue reading ICYMI: ‘If space allows’

The power of a mark

Petition to the Ipswich selectmen, 12 April 1686. Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum

History came vividly alive for me on a cold December day ten years ago in Salem, Massachusetts. For a retired historian, the Phillips Library of Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum was the perfect place to enjoy a brief respite from winter’s doldrums by indulging in the quiet pleasures of archival research. Housed in an elegant, mid-nineteenth-century Italianate townhouse brimming with antiques and historical artifacts, the library’s reading room was warm, intimate, and inviting – its library tables and comfortable Windsor chairs surrounded by bookshelf walls filled with classic reference works on New England history. Above them, original portraits and busts of prominent Massachusetts Bay colonists gazed down on the reading room’s patrons – who, on the day in question, consisted of a few family history gray-beards like myself and a young doctoral candidate or two engaged in dissertation research.[1] Continue reading The power of a mark

Magic of the attic

The Whorfs’ house in Provincetown.

While admiring April’s Super Pink Moon – and contemplating what the man up there must be thinking as he looks down on Earth’s current woes – the notion of the slingshot effect popped into my head. As someone who, as a kid, took great fascination in the Apollo program, I remember this term being used, described as a maneuver using gravity to change the speed or direction of the spacecraft. That’s as far as I will venture into the science of it, lest I earn the ridicule of all the scientists out there, but the term seemed an apt metaphor for my latest genealogical wanderings. We’ve all had those moments. We are on our way somewhere and then, in a sudden shift in trajectory, we are flung in another direction. Continue reading Magic of the attic

ICYMI: A Victorian genealogist

[Author’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 26 May 2015.]

Regina Shober Gray by [Edward L.] Allen, ca. 1860. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, Item PP231.236
One of the mysteries of the Regina Shober Gray diary is why it came to be part of the NEHGS collection. It is an account of daily (or weekly) life, written between January 1860 and December 1884, and for many of the volumes Mrs. Gray is observant about the relationships of her friends and acquaintances, but far less interested, evidently, in the genealogy of the Shober, Gray, and Clay families.

That all changes, however, in March 1874, at tea with one of her nieces: “[Isa Gray] tells me [her sister Ellen] copied Aunt Eliza [Clay]’s[1] genealogical tree of the Clay family – and will lend it to me to have copied, at which I am most pleased. [Her husband’s cousin] Elizabeth Gray lends me a few records of the Grays to copy… I care a great deal for such things – and feel it right to collect for my children and their descendants all the family records & traditions I can obtain.”[2] Continue reading ICYMI: A Victorian genealogist

Enduring mysteries

Ida Mary Way, age 3-4, ca. 1866, Berkeley County, West Virginia.

My first visit to NEHGS was with a now-deceased friend and former coworker and her husband in a February in the mid-1980s. This was also my first visit to New England. We drove up for a genealogy-related purpose: Sally was picking up a melodeon, a reed organ, from a cousin of hers in Dedham. While in the Boston area, we went downtown, ate at Durgin Park, visited Goodspeed’s Book Shop, and, of course, went to NEHGS for a few hours. It is a far different place now than it was 35 or so years ago. I still remember some of the look of the place, especially where the microfilm used to be on the level between the two of the floors, along with most of the rest of the public areas. Continue reading Enduring mysteries

‘From whence emigrated’

A page from the Davis article.

Census records are obviously an essential resource for genealogical research. Until recently, my understanding was that the first U.S. census to provide a place of origin was the 1850 census. Beginning in 1850, the census began to include the names of all family members, ages, and place of birth, among other information. This contrasted with earlier census records that only provided the name of head of household and a broad age range for each family member.  However, while doing some recent case work on a Snow line in Hancock County, Maine around 1800, I came across an article by Walter Goodwin Davis published in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register in 1951. In this article, entitled “Part of Hancock County, Maine in 1800,” Davis called attention to the 1800 census for Hancock and Kennebec Counties (at that time part of Massachusetts) which actually had a column labeled, “from whence emigrated.”[1] Continue reading ‘From whence emigrated’

The General Society

“Howland Overboard,” courtesy of mikehaywoodart.co.uk.

Well, there’s one thing this pandemic isn’t going to do, and that’s dampen my (well-quarantined) spirits for the 400th anniversary of the voyage of the Mayflower. From perusing the pages of a Silver Book[1] to taking advantage of new on-line resources (at NEHGS and elsewhere), well, let’s just say it’s a really cool time to be a Hopkins or a Howland. There are so many advances being made to the study of Mayflower ancestry that, heck, for me it’s a lot like Must See TV.[2] Though I’ve got to tell you, the best part about “Mayflower 2020” – and I do mean the very best part – is in teaching my granddaughters about our pilgrim ancestors, and the reasons behind that voyage of so long ago. Continue reading The General Society

In praise of dissertations

Harvard’s Widener Library. Courtesy of Harvard Magazine

In a previous Vita Brevis post, I sang the praises of tax lists as useful sources of information for family history research. Today’s post focuses attention on another valuable but underutilized research resource: unpublished doctoral dissertations.

Since the 1960s, Ph.D. candidates at U.S. universities have written a surprisingly large number of dissertations on the histories of individual American towns, ranging from the early settlements of colonial New England and other regions to nineteenth-century midwestern farming communities. Continue reading In praise of dissertations

Lucky Essex County

I have always suspected that people with ancestors in Essex County, Massachusetts, do not know how lucky they are. I used to enviously wander among the stacks of published Essex County records at the NEHGS library – probates, court, town, church, deeds. Wow, Essex County has it all.

At the core of this treasure trove was the Essex Institute in Salem, which between 1859 and 1993 published 130 volumes of the Essex Institute Historical Collections [EIHC] – but the material in each volume varies widely from issue to issue resulting in information from the same record sets being spread among many years of issues. Continue reading Lucky Essex County

Mayflower kin: Part Two

A few months ago, I wrote a post on the Mayflower descents of Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul and The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon announcer Steve Higgins. Fairly soon after that post, I got an interesting e-mail from Paula Petry of New Mexico, whose son Ben Petry played Jake Pinkman, brother of Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman, on Breaking Bad. She let me know that her son Ben, through her husband’s ancestry, was also a Mayflower descendant, and that a few months prior, she had done done some genealogical research and connected back with Mayflower passengers Stephen Hopkins and his daughter Constance, William and Mary Brewster, and Thomas Rogers and his son Joseph. Continue reading Mayflower kin: Part Two